Crime that shocked unshockable Mr Welsh

His novels have featured heroin addiction, pornography and the downfall of a sociopathic policeman, but is Irvine Welsh finally getting sensitive in his old age? Sarah Freeman reports.

When Irvine Welsh finds something so disturbing he has to take a three-month holiday, it's a warning to more sensitive souls to cover their eyes.

The author, who made his name back in 1993 with Trainspotting, has never been known to shy away from tackling the seedier side of life, but he even he admits to struggling with the subject matter of his latest novel.

Crime sees Detective Inspector Ray Lennox, a character who made his first appearance in Filth, struggling to cope after investigating a child sex murder in Edinburgh, and researching the issues surrounding paedophilia took its toll on Welsh.

"I went to a couple of support groups and was able to talk to people about how they'd dealt with abuse," he says. "Some embodied the idea that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but for others it had totally dominated their lives.

"When I came back to work on the novel, it just didn't feel right tapping out a work of fiction when I knew there were people who had gone through this kind of ordeal for real. I had to take a few months off from it and let everything I'd heard sink in."

Despite the subject matter, Welsh insists the novel is less about graphic details and more about how individuals and society deal with the kind of crimes which appear to defy any normal rationale. Trying to escape memories of the case, Lennox takes a holiday in Miami Beach, but even there he finds himself dragged into a drug-fuelled underworld.

It's an area Welsh knows well. While he moved from his home city of Edinburgh to Dublin some years ago, he spends much of the winter in America, and says that behind the glamorous surface of the millionaire's playground there's a rich vein of social problems and unrest.

"Like New York was 100 years ago or LA was 50 years ago, Miami Beach is now the place everyone coming into America passes through," he says. "There's a real mix of cultures, which makes it an interesting place to visit, but there's also a sense of lawlessness. Civic pride has all but been eroded. The courtrooms and the Herald and Tribune buildings are all that remain of the past and the new condominiums which were built in the 1990s lie empty because no-one can afford to buy them."

Thanks to Trainspotting and its portrayal of heroin addicts, Welsh's work quickly became a byword for controversy. His subsequent novels didn't disappoint.

The success of Welsh's books has certainly opened doors and while there are more novels in the pipeline, including a prequel to Trainspotting, he is also working on a film based on the life of Kenny Richey, a fellow Scot who spent 21 years on Death Row, and he has written numerous screenplays with Bradford-born writer Dean Cavanagh.

"At any one time there's a lot of things bubbling under and it just depends which reaches critical mass first," he says. "Working with Dean has been great. He did a draft for the adaptation of Filth. With him being from Yorkshire and me being from Scotland, most of what we do ends up in the middle and sounding Geordie.

"As an author you can be a bit protective about a novel, but with a screenplay it's a bit different. Neither of us has any fear of striking red pen through each other's work."

As he embarks on a publicity tour for Crime, it's a welcome opportunity to meet those who made him a bestseller.

"The readers seem to be getting younger, but maybe that's just because I'm getting older," he says. "They're probably the same motley crew of cultural dissidents who were there from the start, but there's more of them than there used to be. In the early days there'd be half a dozen people and you'd all end up down the pub. Now there can be hundreds which is fine, because I drink less and party less than I used to."

Irvine Welsh will talk about Crime at Waterstone's in Albion Street, Leeds, at 7pm on Wednesday, July 9. Tickets cost 3 and are redeemable against the book. Call 0113 2444588.